Pueblo's Gem: The Lost Colorado Mineral Palace
In 1889, the future seemed bright for Pueblo, Colorado. With three smelters and one steel mill, the mining industry had brought wealth to the rough and rapidly growing city, which saw itself developing into a major urban center. Part of fulfilling that promise was creating a splendid tourist attraction that would cement both Pueblo’s and Colorado’s status as a world cultural center. That attraction was the Mineral Palace, which exists today as only a vague memory encapsulating the best and the worst of Victorian Pueblo.
On July 6th, 1889, twenty men from Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo met in secret in Manitou Springs to discuss forming a corporation. The corporation’s goal: to build a stunning exposition hall worthy of competition with London’s Crystal Palace. Who originally had the idea is unclear–some say it was General Robert A. Cameron, who founded Greeley Colony and Colorado Springs, and was one of the first wardens of Cañon City. But it was more likely William “Coin” Harvey who convinced the men to invest in the palace, whether it was his idea originally or not.
Harvey was an iconic western character who was always involved in shady enterprises. He moved to Pueblo in 1888, where he opened a real estate office–just one of a long line of businesses Harvey would start or get involved in during his lifetime. In addition to selling Pueblo real estate, he helped promote a sanatorium run by Dr. RW Corwin, whose claim to fame was “the elixir of life.” This elixir was actually just water from Lake Minnequa, but Harvey claimed it could cure everything from chronic illness to psychosis (St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center now stands on the location of the former sanatorium).
Harvey believed Pueblo was going places–or, at the very least, he was going places and Pueblo could help him do it–and proposed to the twenty business men gathered on the neutral ground of Manitou that they should form a company for the building and management of a hall exhibiting all the treasures of Colorado–namely minerals pulled from mines. As several member of his audience were mine owners, this was sure to please. He suggested a budget of one hundred thousand dollars, and that the building be set on 40 acres north of Lake Minnequa (eventually the location was switched to a then-undeveloped part of town closer to the train depot, so as to make the Palace more accessible to tourists).
The original shareholders of the Palace were prominent businessmen, and not just on a local level. They included Benjamin Guggenheim, the father of Peggy Guggenheim who died aboard the RMS Titanic; the founder of the Rio Grande Railroad and the city of Colorado Springs, William Palmer; the original owner of the Brown Palace Hotel, Henry Brown; and Don Fletcher and “Chamberlain” from Denver. Other members included Harvey himself, of course; George Hobson; a Guggenheim mine manager by the name of CL Hill; George Parsons; Fred Barndollar; John Lavozey; and OHP Boxter and AJ McQuaid, who were both members of the socially prestigious Pueblo Club. Coincidentally, many of these men would start business or build in the area around Mineral Palace in the years to come.
Great building projects were hardly unusual in Pueblo at the time. Between 1888 and 1893, 3500 brick buildings were erected in Pueblo, and the city commissioned a number of nationally renowned architects to design them. These included the Pueblo Opera House, designed by Louis H. Sullivan, who is sometimes called the “father of modernism”; the Union Depot, designed by Frank V. Newell of Sprague & Newell; the Central Block, which was a five-story commercial building based on Chicago-style urban architecture; and the mansion of John Thatcher (now the Rosemount Museum), designed by Henry Hudson Holly and the largest home in Colorado at the time of its completion in 1893. Of all these buildings, however, the Colorado Mineral Palace was supposed to be the most impressive, garnering attention on a national level and promoting the riches of Colorado throughout the world.
Thomas Nelson, the Colorado Mineral Palace Company’s secretary, put out a general call for Coloradoans to send samples of all the minerals in their areas so as to make the “collection as nearly exhaustive as possible.” JP Morgan donated his entire personal collection of minerals for exhibition, and both Trinidad and Aspen promised to fund statues honoring coal and silver, respectively. These statues–King Coal and Queen Silver–would later be designed by Pueblo artist Hiram L. Johnson.
To house this grand collection, Pueblo needed an equally grand building, and put out a call to architects from all over the world. Yet the architect chosen was actually a resident of Pueblo. Otto Bulow, originally from Sweden, designed Routt Hall at Colorado State University, as well as other buildings in the state. Nothing he designed was as curiously fantastical as the Colorado Mineral Palace, however, which to modern eyes seems fascinatingly kitschy.
The exterior was “Egyptian” in style, surrounded by a colonnade and with four grand pillars at each corner, each holding a massive globe ten feet in diameter. The interior had an entrance hall that was 70 by 26 feet, which led into a formal interior 91 by 183 feet. Topped by a 72-foot tall dome, the Mineral Palace was the largest domed structure in the world at the time. Not content with just one large dome, however, there were 20 smaller domes as well, each 11 feet in diameter.
To make the building even more grand, it was to be entirely coated, interior and exterior, in minerals. The interior was to be lit entirely by electric light and have 50 pillars that would double as viewing pilasters for the minerals. Finally, there was a stage with “appropriate Rocky Mountain scenery”–stalactites and stalagmites like a cave, with a small stream running behind. Beneath the great dome would be a “prismatic” fountain.
Why did Bulow choose such a complex design for the palace? Perhaps the mind behind the design wasn’t Bulow at all, but Harvey, who had a fondness for grandiose, ancient-style building projects. Later in his life, he built a resort in the Ozarks called Monte Ne, at the heart of which was a monumental pyramid commemorating–who else?–Harvey, as well as containing a library for the post-Apocalyptic generation. Fortunately, the Colorado Mineral Palace was simply overly ambitious and not as egomaniacal as Harvey’s pyramid. Not quite.
In any case, the project was quickly beset with problems. There was squabbling among the board members, and some suspicion that Secretary Nelson had “mishandled” the subscriptions. The company started to garner a bad reputation, so that many people–such as influential real estate developer SM Kirkland in Denver–denied involvement in the project.
The anticipated date of completion came and went. The corporation had run through its money and, because of an economic downturn and the falling price of silver, raising more seemed impossible. After an infusion of cash from the city of Pueblo and a reorganization of the board with Benjamin Guggenheim as president, it was decided some serious cuts in the design of the building would have to be made: stone instead of brick, paint instead of minerals. The interior walls were painted terra cotta and gold, with “East Indian reliefs” (what this means is unclear) and a frieze of silver dollars surrounding the hall, along with coats of arms of all the US states and territories. 2200 electric lights burned in the hearts of painted flowers, and the smaller domes were painted with Colorado wildflowers and flowers from India. The great dome had putti figures and cameos of eight great Americans. No one knows who the eight great Americans were, but we do know they were nominated and selected by popular vote from across the country. Thomas Edison received the most nominations, but recused himself, saying he knew nothing about art.
But the real stars of the Mineral Palace were King Coal and Queen Silver. 14 feet high, dressed in a cloak of “dark minerals,” with “diamonds” (probably just glass) decorating his crown and coal topping his scepter, King Coal made his way into Trinidad cigar boxes but always played a dreary second to his glittering companion, Queen Silver.
According to legend, Queen Silver was made out of the largest nugget of silver ever pulled from the Gibson mine, which was made into her crown, her silver dollar-topped scepter, and her head with hair of white glass. Her gown was made of dark minerals, and she rode in a silver-covered combination chariot/barge. Her bust and arms were silver (or silver-coated, or tin coated), and she finished her ensemble with a scarf of blue crystal. After a brief appearance in the Mineral Palace for the grand opening, as seen in William Henry Jackson’s photographs, she traveled to Aspen. From there, she was sent to represent Colorado in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, along with a jewel-encrusted miniature of the Mineral Palace created by Charles Otero.
At the Columbian Exposition, the Silver Queen was more than just a pretty face—her real purpose in Chicago was revealed in the scroll in her lap that read, “Free Coinage,” demonstrating a not-surprising loyalty to mine owners whose wealth was threatened by the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. The act required the Federal Government to buy a certain amount of silver for coinage. But due to the Panic of 1893, President Grover Cleveland repealed it–the beginning of the end of the silver mining boom, just as the Columbian Exposition was the beginning of the end for the Silver Queen.
The statue remained in Chicago for a time after the World’s Fair closed, and when she finally came back to the Mineral Palace, the she was significantly altered. The stag on the prow of the Queen’s barge and the coins from the boys’ cornucopias were missing, and the Queen’s face and body didn’t look the same. Did the Silver Queen burn in one of the fires at the Columbian Exposition? Was she stolen, stripped for the silver? No one will ever know–the statue disappeared mysteriously after the Mineral Palace was destroyed, never to be seen again.
The fate of the Mineral Palace was no happier than that of the Silver Queen. Perhaps less, for there’s no mystery to add an air of intrigue to its inglorious demise. After a grand opening with parades, important guests, fireworks, and a fancy-dress ball that went on all night, financial troubles quickly revisited the company. The building had taken twice as long to complete and cost twice as much as originally anticipated. With the mining boom over, the optimism that had kept the Colorado Mineral Palace Company afloat was rapidly fading. Within a year the Palace was bought by the City of Pueblo at the company’s request, with a committee to direct it that read like a who’s who of Southern Colorado: William Palmer, Alva Adams, Andrew McClelland, and Mahlon Thatcher.
For several years the Colorado Mineral Palace lured tourists to the city of Pueblo through the use of broadsheets and other promotional material. By 1927, however, the building was described as ramshackle. It was too expensive to keep up properly, or even heat (the designers had neglected to install windows, so it was always freezing). In 1938 and ’39, the WPA restored the building to its former glory, but by 1943 the city did a one-eighty and decided to tear it down completely for “the war effort” and public safety. All the minerals left in the building were liquidated for the sum total of eight hundred dollars, and the palace once called the eighth wonder of the world faded into memory.
The rise and fall of the Colorado Mineral Palace echoes the story of many Colorado towns that abruptly realized their limitations after a massive boom in the nineteenth century. What would we think of the Mineral Palace if it had survived the post-War boom? Would it be considered a monstrosity, or would it have fulfilled its promise as a treasure of Colorado, a monument to our state’s industrial roots and mining history? Perhaps the saddest thing about the Mineral Palace is that we’ll never know.